Every morning it’s the same. I wake up in the darkness while my loved ones still sleep. I tiptoe into the kitchen to make coffee. The Pot sits there on the stove, in the shadows. And out of the silence, it speaks: “Well, Haupt, what’s for dinner?” What a rude question before I am even caffeinated! I could prevent this inquisition, of course, by putting The Pot away at night, but the thing is too dang heavy. It’s my 5 quart Lodge cast iron dutch oven. It’s the pot I use, and (in spite of the morning inquest) love the most.
I recall a sweet little piece called “The Pupil and the Black Pot,” penned by a young monk for The Zen Monastary Cookbook:
It is the biggest pot I have ever seen.
It is the heaviest pot I have ever lifted.
It can feed a biblical number of people.
It can empty in an awesomely short amount of time.
It can glisten incredibly tempting.
It is one of the kitchen cornerstones.
It is one of the mute role models of monastic life, never complaining,
always ready to serve, a forever forgiving teacher.
So true! My mother has a pot like this, and so does my grandmother, and probably your grandmother. Their mothers had one. Ma Ingalls packed one in the covered wagon when she traveled with her family from Minnesota to the Dakota Territories. It’s small wonder that cast iron has endured–a nicely seasoned cast iron pan is as slick as any manufactured nonstick surface, and distributes and retains heat more evenly than any pan but copper (much better than stainless or aluminum!). But compared to copper or good stainless, it is practically free.
My 5 quart Lodge cast iron dutch oven was a gift from my mother a few years ago, and you can get a new one for about $30. My cast iron skillet, which an elderly landlord gave to me in college, was a wedding gift to her when she was married over 70 years ago–it couldn’t be in better shape. Lodge is the only domestic manufacturer of cast iron cookware, still using some of their original molds, which are over 100 years old. The pans are cast of scrap steel converted back into iron, and pig-iron ingot (an intermediate stage in the melting of iron ore). You can get cheaper cast iron, but its hard to beat Lodge quality (cheaper pans will have hot spots, and may eventually crack with heavy use or high heat). I love the look of good cast iron–so rich and rustic. It moves easily from the stovetop to the oven, and I use it for almost everything.
People fuss about seasoning, which sounds mysterious and time-consusming, but is actually very simple. Heat the oven to 350. Wash and dry your pan, then heat it gently over low heat on the stovetop (don’t forget about it!). Rub the pan evenly inside and out with a neutral oil (corn is great, canola is fine), then bake in the oven for about an hour, and let it cool there before removing it. Done! Repeat a couple of times a year, or do a booster-seasoning if your pan seems to need it, or if you cook a particularly acidic dish. Wipe off excess oil after seasoning, especially if you aren’t going to use the pan for a few days–you don’t want the oily surface to become sticky and rancid. Many Lodge pots now come pre-seasoned, but it’s still nice to give them a light washing and seasoning at home before use. The finish will just become lovelier over the years.
There is a looming myth that you will forever ruin the seasoning on a cast iron pot if you scrub it with soap. While it’s true that a light wiping is all that is normally needed and rigorous scouring should be avoided, a little scrub with mild soap now and then won’t hurt a thing. Dry the pan and lid well after washing to prevent rust, and if some turns up, gently remove it with steel wool.
Cast iron adds a small but measurably healthy trace of iron to our cooking.. The lid of the dutch oven is lined with prongs, which collect condensed moisture and drop it into the pot, so you can steam many vegetables without an insert, including sturdy greens like chard and kale. Can’t beat it for sauces, soups, and stews. In addition to stovetop frying, the skillet can be used for frittatas, quiches, cobblers, even pie– and of course it is the pan of choice for corn bread.
Cast iron is heavy, which is one of the reasons that elderly people sometimes stop using it, and beautiful seasoned cast iron will turn up at yard and estate sales, or sit unused in the back of our grandmother’s cupboard–have a look. Expensive modern cookware gleans much of its appeal from marketing and television chef endorsements. Cast iron will most often perform just as well (or better), and looks just as good. I love that we can stand in this historical cookware lineage, have wonderful pots, spend very little money, and cook healthfully all at once.
For more than you could ever want to know about the care of cast-iron (including the repair of cracks), check out this website.